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A theatre of the human condition

Portrait of Krzysztof Warlikowski

A theatre of the human condition

A major Figure of Polish theatre, a tormented artist with a post-romantic sensibility; a man of the theatre “haunted” by History, a provocateur and a troublemaker, Krzysztof Warlikowski fascinates and unnerves, captivates and scares leaving no one indifferent. With his endlessly evolving aesthetic of form, his unusual use of acting, his melancholic electronic music, Warlikowski has created an art theatre centred on the human condition.

In this disillusioned world where the gods have abandoned men, he feels empathy with lost souls, their existential quest and their inner conflicts. The larger History is experienced through the psyche of distress, the memory of the victims of social exclusion, the shattered consciousness of those living on the fringes. The abandonment of salutary utopias and the despair of missed revolutions has created a feeling of emptiness and a malaise in civilisation. Warlikowski observes the complexity of souls, questions their dilemmas and their contradictions and the metaphysics that he experiments with on stage is more of a modest recognition – in other words, a spiritual metamorphosis of man by his own will.

Poland year zero

In Wagner’s Parsifal (2008), Warlikowski avoids trying to settle scores with Germany’s past and focuses on Parsifal’s inner journey. What he questions is the possibility of a new society with the idea of a spiritual Grail, a sort of purity of soul akin to the little child within us eclipsed by fear and prejudice. He makes just one reference to History and it is “pure” – to use his own words – direct and unvarnished. In the darkness, just before the prelude of the third act, he projects a montage of images from the film Germany, Year Zero by Roberto Rossellini: alone, little Edmund picks his way through the ruins of Berlin in 1948, climbs the stairs of a crumbling building and then jumps off the roof. This scandalous image of so young a suicide was far from a provocation: it expressed his doubts regarding the advent of a better world; it drew on memory and compassion; and yet, it also echoed his own childhood in Szczecin.

Krzysztof Warlikowski was born in Szczecin (Stettin in German) in 1962. And even though he left that city to study history and philosophy in Cracow and then Paris; and even though, with time, he would become the European artist par excellence, Szczecin remains a place which condenses his tormented vision and the demons of History that inhabit it – the decline of Western civilization, spiritual emptiness, antisemitism and homophobia, the ravages of capitalism and individualism, the rise of totalitarianism and the collapse of democracy.

That city, close to the German border on the Polish side of the Baltic has been shunted around for much of Europe’s history. Polish, Prussian, Swedish, Danish, then German, it became part of Poland again when Stalin expanded Poland’s territory westward in violation of the 1945 Yalta accords.

The consequences were huge: seven million Germans would leave Pomerania and its capital, Szczecin. Into that ghost city destroyed by war and built on land conquered by force, uprooted Polish Christians and Jews repatriated from the USSR would settle as well as they could. The German past would be expunged, the Iron Curtain would fall, and antisemitism would be stifled. Warlikowski would be born seventeen years later. There can be no doubt that the spectres of war have left an indelible mark on his way of thinking.

Parsifal (2008)
Parsifal (2008) © Ruth Walz / OnP

Look where it’s forbidden…

“The true masters of the theatre are most easily found far from the stage”. It was with that phrase that Warlikowski opened his speech for the Journée Mondiale du Théâtre 2015. The masters he was referring to—the prophets who herald the world’s disillusionment—are the writers. Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and the contemporary John Maxwell Coetzee recount man’s powerlessness in the face of tragic events. Media hype trivialises suffering and engenders a fear of the other; individualism cloisters consciousness behind a wall of conservative and intolerant thought. “Unable to build towers”, our horizon is limited to the things that we know and which the theatre merely copies. In a world so obsessed by frontiers and walls, says the director, the real reason for theatre to exist is not to protect our blinkered bastions but to look beyond the walls where we find the forbidden truths.

In Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (2005) - of which a reprise is planned for the 2016-17 season - Ancient Greece is transposed into a modern retirement home where a dozen genuine retirees, hired specially for the production, keep company with a dying Iphigénie – the orphaned princess who recalls her youth in Aulide and Tauride. The visibility accorded to that disavowed minority in the red and gold décor of the Palais Garnier was not so willingly embraced by audiences. Because, in their inability to scale the walls of their own consciences, those silver-haired spectators were unable to endure a full-frontal reflection of their own condition.

Iphigénie en Tauride (2005)
Iphigénie en Tauride (2005) © Éric Mahoudeau / OnP

Through the mirror

If the walls were scaled and if the thresholds of the doors were crossed, one would find a spartan bathroom with a white porcelain basin and a mirror. Malgorzata Szczesniak has conceived an extreme scenographic backdrop in which Man confronts his traumas. Such a profound exploration of troubled interiority can only occur in the clinical intimacy of a neutral space in a confined place where everything is stripped bare. On this stage at times the infernal agony of solitude can become almost tolerable.

In Tramway (2010), a loose adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois (Isabelle Huppert), alone in the world and borderline, gets off the streetcar and finds herself on Elysian Fields Avenue, a run-down working-class district of New Orleans. During her unhappy stay in the cramped apartment of her sister Stella and Stella’s lover Stanley Kowalski, the bathroom becomes Blanche’s only refuge. She takes hot baths to calm her nerves and in front of the mirror – personified by Denis Guéguin’s live video – Blanche observes the turbulent complexities of her soul. This painful standoff suspended in time, this inner tribunal with neither god nor judge – since it is Blanche alone who is the torturer of her own conscience – unfurls in the form of a monologue, a key dramaturgical element in the work of Warlikowski.

Blind spots

Warlikowski’s theatre is a space of shadowy light and blind spots; a place of resurrection where the characters are subjected to their repressed fears and the psychological defence mechanisms that accompany them. In the nebulous labyrinth of African Tales (2011) a dramatic montage made up of three Shakespearian tragedies, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and King Lear, the division of the realm by King Lear has more to do with emotional reasons than dynastic interests. Frightened by the realization of his paternal feelings, Lear circumvents his fear by asking a perverse question: how exactly do his three daughters love him? The tragedy will be encapsulated by a misplaced word and the fate that unfurls will be that of a man incapable of expressing his true feelings.

The dramatic monologue has a counterpart in opera: the aria. And if that moment of vocal virtuosity often tends towards the outward expression of emotion, Warlikowski makes sure that the voice emanates from a complex subconsciousness. In Verdi's Macbeth (2010), beyond the Shakespearian considerations of power, Macbeth is a man traumatised by war and shattered by the grief of lost innocence. The witches – played by children – are as much post-traumatic hallucinations as they are the expression of a phantasm evoking the sterility of his marriage.    

The ghosts of cinema

“When Krzysztof watches a film, he is only interested in the characters” says his choreographer Claude Bardouil. In his quest to give his characters greater substance, Warlikowski does not hesitate to look for doubles in the world of cinema. In Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger (2009), King Roger and his wife Roxane bring to mind the Cruise/Kidman couple in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999); Don Giovanni (2012), now a sexually-obsessed inner-city loser, takes his lead from Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011), directed by Steve McQueen.

In Janáek’s The Makropoulos Affair (2007), Warlikowski takes the character of Emilia Marty and transposes her into an opera diva in the guise of the mythical Marilyn Monroe. However, Warlikowski moves beyond the star glamour and explores the tragic side of the iconic actress only to discover an unhappy, ageing woman destroyed by a chaotic childhood and a disastrous procession of failed love affairs. Malgorzata Szczesniak’s scenography evokes the world of cinema and cabaret while the videos of Denis Guéguin reveal a wretched Marilyn in a world where as the flashbulbs explode, cameramen film and the public applaud the ill-fated fall of the idols.

The Makropoulos Affair (2007)
The Makropoulos Affair (2007) © Éric Mahoudeau / OnP

Beyond this line, time becomes space

Increasingly, the dramatic focus of this man who feeds on cinema and draws inspiration from literature, shifts into a space beyond theatre, as if theatre was ultimately just a pretext to express his subjectivity and voice his concerns about our troubled world. Since (A)pollinia (2008), he has ceased to use a pre-established text in his theatre. The stage scripts are based on a loose collection of adaptations of plays, novels and improvised prose.

Faced with the horizontality of his dramatic writing and a creative process where the exploration of memory and conflict takes place in complete freedom, opera poses a real challenge. “Opera is one of the most contemporary of forms. It integrates absolutely everything!” says Warlikowski. In his quest for a new formal structure, he has conceived a form of vertical writing. Through the stratification of multiple meanings, temporal simultaneity, the blur of multiple spaces, the juxtaposition of sophisticated lighting techniques, choreography and hauntingly compelling videos – his opera productions come across as a syncretic kaleidoscope of realities and overlapping time.

His dramatic perspective is so extreme that the score's frozen time explodes and spills out over traditional boundaries; the narration goes well beyond the libretto and the musical discourse and the silent bodies insinuate themselves into prologues invented to recount another story. Fictitious characters appear: the Guide in Parsifal, the Dancer in Lulu (2012), and Children prowl around the stage, like painful shadows of the past or precursors of future fantasies.

Leyli Daryoush is a dramatist, a researcher, and a teacher in theatre studies at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle. She is also the author of theatre and opera librettos – Tehran ’09 and TPNY memory – and Opéra et art vidéo à travers l’œuvre scénique de Krzysztof Warlikowski (due to be published in January 2016).

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